3 May 2012

A Place to Call Home

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) does exhibitions rather well.

Careful planning got me to London for opera in the evening with time to catch the last day of A Place to Call Home in the afternoon.

The exhibition was held in the room on the first floor which strikes me as being about the same size of a squash court (not that I've ever played squash).

It's not a very big room so it took some clever arranging of the display to fit everything in. This they did by putting the boards diagonally across the room and by putting them quite close together.

The downside of this was that it was quite difficult to walk around the exhibition because of all the other people getting in the way and the upside was that there was plenty of stuff to see.

The exhibition told the story of the British home chronologically through a series of smaller stories that explained how major changes came about.

The history was fascinating in revealing the various drivers for housing change (improvement) over the years.

The drivers include the obvious things like the post war era ("a home fit for heroes") and also public health, new building techniques and also changing demands for space, gardens, community, industry, transport and lifestyle.

Perhaps most obvious in this respect was the way that class was such a factor little over a century a ago with houses being clearly designed for specific classes and we even saw a railway poster advertising cheap tickets for the "working class".


The exhibition had a vibrant mix of words, pictures and models that made it informative, stimulating and interesting. You really wanted to spend your time reading and looking at everything.

There were many interesting facts strewn along the way and I've chosen this one as it makes two main points, the Netherlands has a higher population density (despite what Migration Watch etc. would have you believe) and our houses are much smaller.

The later fact will be obvious who lives in a mixed area and has had the chance to see inside houses from different ages.

We do not do housing at all well these days and it's all Thatcher's fault.

Most of the improvements in housing that I mentioned earlier were driven by the public sector, either through national government setting building standards or through local government building houses. Then Thatcher stopped councils from building houses and reduced building regulations.

It would be easy to swamp an exhibition like this with pictures and, to an extent, they did but they were all carefully selected for the message that they would give so that each one demanded attention.

It took something like an hour (slightly more I think) to progress through the room which shows just how much there was to see and how compelling it all was.

After a welcome cup of coffee and a flapjack in the bar downstairs it was time to head up to the third floor for the related High Society exhibition. This was a collection of photographs of some iconoclastic high-rise estates.

I did make one error in that part of the exhibition was in the Library and that is closed on Saturday afternoons.

Luckily the two estates that I wanted to see, The Alton Estate, Roehampton and Park Hill, Sheffield, were in the lobby outside of the library so I could see them.

The Roehampton flats are only a few miles away and can be seen from some distance so it was good to learn more about their history.

It also echoes the opening of the main exhibition, the cute street scene at the top is also from Roehampton.

This was another excellent RIBA exhibition, even by their high standards.

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